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Thursday, May 18, 2006

ATI Multimedia Center Out of Box Review

The ATI All-In-Wonder 2006 Edition AGP card comes with its own multimedia center software, which consists of a CD player, a DVD player, a video CD player, a File Player, and a TV viewer. The version included in the box is ATI Multimedia Center 9.06 (the newest version 9.13 can be downloaded from ATI, which will be discussed in a later blog).

A quick walk-thru of the available features in ATI Multimedia Center (and some mysteries, oddities, confundities, and complaints):

This is the LaunchPad. It can be set up to appear every time you log onto Windows (or you can open it from the Start Menu). It has links (from left to right): DVD player, TV, File Player, VCD player, CD player, TV Guide (the GuidePlus program), Media Library, muvee autoProducer (a mini video editing widget), Configuration, Desktop Settings, ATI on the web link, Help, and Close. By right-clicking on the LaunchPad, you can set it up to always be on top of the screen or change its size -- here shown as a small row. Other choices are: "awkward" column and "honking" big menu.

The DVD player with typical DVD controls. Might be useful if you want to watch DVDs on your computer instead of on a TV.

(Note: if you're thinking of dubbing DVDs using this program, it won't work. The encoding on DVDs prevents it from displaying correctly in the recorded file even though it looks fine onscreen).

The TV player: A right-click on the TV will bring up several menu options: including "Setup". The Setup window contains color and brightness settings and an editable list of TV stations and names. Other right-click options include: Display Size and Input Selector (tuner, S-video, Composite video). You can also choose to view the TV on the desktop, in a window, full-screen, or transmitted through all the windows on screen. This last option is interesting, especially if you want to watch something while you're working, but it does make it harder to see both the thing you are working on and the TV. There is also a scheduler that can be set up to record TV, or just to watch it at a specific time.

In the TV controls proper, there are several links. From left to right they are: TV Guide (GuidePlus), Export for TV-on-Demand, Start Recording, Still Capture, Zoom, Closed Caption, Parental Control, Input Selector, and Mute. The checkbox is a link to the Setup menu.
TV-On-Demand is interesting... it saves the program you are watching so you can rewind or fast-forward through commercials. I'm not sure how this is much different from recording the program and watching it later. I guess it's for people who are impatient and want to watch TV while its recording. A fine sentiment if your remote works.

The File Player, VCD player, and CD player all have basic functions, and look and work similarly to how you might expect. Therefore, no pictures are shown here. Does the File Player and CD Player replace Windows Media Player? The audio file types ATI Multimedia Center can read are mp3, m3u, wav, mid, and cda. Surprisingly, there's no provision for playback of .ogg Vorbis format files, which is open-source and royalty-free. The video types it can read are avi, mpg, mpeg, mp2, vob, vcr, asf, and wmv. (Let me just say now that the ATI players don't handle MPEG well, it tends to sputter). Windows Media Player can't read the ATI format (vcr), but it does read a lot of other things. The big reason to keep Windows Media Player: the ATI CD player can't output to a file (AKA, rip a CD).

The TV Listings provided via GuidePlus: it's nothing fancy. I have the same program on my regular nothing-special TV. You enter your zipcode and it looks up one week of programming at your location. There is also a weekly crossword puzzle that you can download (from the year 2000).

You have the option of selecting programs and choosing to watch or record them. You can filter the station list down to your favorite channels. As you can tell, our local TV stations are thoughtful enough to provide countless hours of Paid Programming. (man, what a good show!) You can search for programs by station, time, name, actors, and categories.
Children's programming is highlighted in light blue, sports in green, and movies in dark blue. It displays the TV in the upper left-hand corner of the window. Below which is the weekly advertising. So far, no one except Radeon and GuidePlus have actually advertised here, can you say poor ad-space sales? The current program displayed on the TV is highlighted in white.

Complaints: you have to manually download the weekly programs file once a week. Sometimes you don't even get the current day or a full week. Also, the program doesn't install a shortcut to GuidePlus in your start menu, the only way to get to it is either to open the LaunchPad or TV first (or creatively make your own shortcut).

The Media Library: oh, so many things I can't wait to complain about. But first, this is where a list of the programs you've recorded is kept, and it's supposed to make viewing them easy.

Confundities: recorded programs will stay in this list until you manually remove them. If you move the file or rename it, it will not get updated in this list. You have to manually tell it to search for the new files. Further annoyance befalls you when you think you can delete files directly from this list. Oh, no, you can remove them from the list, but to delete them, you have to go to the source by surfing through your Windows folders. Unless you are lucky enough to try a right-mouse click and suddenly "Delete" is an option. It's even worse for TV-On-Demand because it writes them to a hidden directory in your ATI MMC folder.

A Media Library Mystery: Wish you could transform your vcr formatted file to something more useful like MPEG, which plays in Windows Media Player? Ah, well, you have to divine the hidden mouse click... a right-click on a recorded program listed in the Media Library will give you the option to export to other file types.

A Media Library Confundity: There is a button just below the "X-closes this window" button (upper right corner) that produces the words "Create Media Layout" when you hover over it. Ah, this is supposed to allow you to export your recordings directly to DVD. Alas, you can try it but it doesn't work. I get angry errors, then I just get angry.

muvee autoProducer: a nice thought but not a complete video editing program. What it does do: takes a video you've already made or acquired and combines it with music, captions, effects, and transitions. Perhaps faster than using Windows Movie Maker, but you have less control.

ATI Multimedia Center Configuration: here you can find a few skins to change the look of the media center. There are some other settings here of dubious importance that you can change also.

A few general oddities (um, mostly complaints) about recording TV programs with the All-In-Wonder card:

1) Setting up recurring recording of specific programs:
Let's say you have a favorite show on once a week, and you want to set it up automatically to record it each week. Can you do that from the GuidePlus programs listing? NO! You have to open the TV Player (or one of the other ATI players) and select "Setup", then click on the Schedule tab. Then "Create New" or "Modify" an existing event. This takes you to the Personal Video Recorder, a wizard. In the Personal Video Recorder, you can set up recurring recordings and other very important features like recording length (no longer a slave to the TV listings). For example, if you know that a show tends to run long, or get preempted, then you can set up the recorder to add on a few extra minutes at the end, so you will never miss the ending of a show ever again. It seems crazy to me that they have buried such useful features so far inside menus!

But wait, my complaining doesn't stop there! Even after you've carefully set up an event with the Personal Video Recorder, it doesn't always show up in the Scheduler inside GuidePlus. And vice versa, the programs you choose to record in GuidePlus don't always show up in the Personal Video Recorder. And if they do, often they aren't named correctly, and just appear as "Unknown Event". Furthermore, events that have expired (already been recorded and aren't going to occur again), remain in the Scheduler until you manually delete them (instead of just disappearing as you might expect). Also, sometimes when scheduling different events at the same time of day but on different days of the week causes the program to think that you've double-booked your time and gives you an angry error, and it fails to record.

Another important feature buried in the Personal Video Recorder is the option to have the TV actually turn itself off after it's done recording a program. GASP! What a concept?! If you select programs to record in GuidePlus, expect your TV to be on all night until you manually close the TV player.

2) TiVO it's not! I don't own TiVO and never have, but I've seen it and used it. Benefits of TiVO: you can watch one thing and record another, the TV doesn't have to be on to record, it's easy to set up recurring recordings, it will record "extras" (things it thinks you will like). Benefits of ATI: it's more private (your program preferences aren't returned to evil corporations -- as far as I know), and it comes with a graphics card for your computer.

Disadvantages of ATI: unless you have a dual core processor, count on not being able to use your computer while the TV is recording! This is a big pain! You're happily working along, forgetting that your favorite show is on in a few minutes, the TV kicks on and you can't even finish your thought because the screen freezes up while the TV loads. You might be able to do something simple like use the Microsoft calculator to add 2+2, but you'll probably lose frames from the TV recording, causing it to look like stop animation.

3) When All-In-Wonder Crashes -- Oh, the humanity:
Sometimes ATI Multimedia center decides that you've seen enough TV, and stops displaying the picture. Simply closing and reopening the program doesn't fix the problem. It requires a complete shutdown and restart. Other times, it will stop projecting the audio. This is extremely annoying, especially when it occurs during a TV recording.

4) If you want to use ATI to record TV, you probably will have to leave it running in the background all the time. I personally don't have the patience or the brainpower to remember to keep turning it off and on all the time. The problem: it uses up a lot of virtual memory (according to my Google Sidebar plug-in, about 70% of the virtual memory). This limits the other programs you can have open at the same time.

5) Playback of recorded program is hampered by malfunctions. First, the remote rarely works (to be discussed in another blog because this one is getting too long). Second, pressing the fast-forward button even with the mouse rarely works. The file will just sputter as it trys to keep up, and even mashing the button doesn't work, you'll just end up in the same spot. So you may as well just accept that you're going to have to watch all those annoying Old Navy and Burger King commercials.

The Summary: This would be a nice little card with lots of power if the software took advantage of it. The surprising thing is that this isn't even the first edition of this card. I expected all the bugs to be worked out by now.

This was the second part of a series of blogs reviewing the ATI All-In-Wonder 2006 Edition AGP card. Read the first part here.

Next time: The ATI Remote and why it makes me cranky... very, very cranky!


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